Sex and spirituality: Stanley Spencer’s ‘visions’ return to Cookham
Source:theguardian Author:Harriet Sherwood Date: 2018-04-09 Size:
He was one of the most inspirational artists of the 20th century……

The Last Supper, 1920, with the naked feet and bony toes of the apostles, is the ‘real gem’ of the Cookham collection. Photograph: © Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman Images, London

He was one of the most inspirational artists of the 20th century, a visionary who painted real village folk in grandiose biblical scenes, and the creator of the most important artistic first world war memorial in the UK.

But there were periods when Stanley Spencer was close to penury as the result of his unconventional personal life and the apparent avarice of his second wife. The acclaimed artist relied on patrons, who supported him by buying his paintings and commissioning works, but also by housing and feeding him, and offering him emotional and intellectual sustenance.

Now an exhibition entitled Patron Saints brings together many of the works Spencer’s benefactors bought, in the Stanley Spencer Gallery in the artist’s home village of Cookham, Berkshire. Spencer had an almost spiritual attachment to Cookham, which inspired many of his paintings.

The 21 works in the new exhibition include Love on the Moor, a subversive celebration of free love which took 18 years to complete. It was first bought by Spencer’s lawyer, Wilfrid Evill, and has been loaned to the gallery by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.


Love on the Moor, completed in 1954. Photograph: © Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman Images, London

At the centre of the vibrant scene, set on Cookham Moor, the artist’s first wife Hilda Carline – also an artist – is depicted as Venus with an adoring Spencer wrapped around her legs in worship. A distant figure dressed in fur and stilettos in the top left corner of the vast painting is thought to be Patricia Preece, whom Spencer married a week after divorcing Hilda.

The Last Supper, painted as a scene in Cookham malt house, was initially bought by Sir Henry Slesser, a judge and socialist. Spencer lived with Slesser and his wife Margaret for over a year, and included the patron in one of his most famous works, The Resurrection, Cookham.

With the naked feet and bony toes of Christ’s disciples prominent, The Last Supper first hung in Slesser’s private chapel. Later, it was displayed in Holy Trinity church in Cookham before being replaced by a copy, with the valuable original moved to the nearby gallery. “It is the real gem of our collection, and has been shown all over the world,” said archivist Ann Danks.

Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors, 1933. , Photograph: © Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman Images, London

The largest work in the exhibition is an unfinished masterpiece, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, which Spencer worked on in the years before his death from cancer in 1959. Christ is depicted preaching from a wicker chair on an old horseferry barge.

The patron for this work – which is more than five metres wide – was William, 3rd Viscount Astor, whose family seat, Cliveden, is over the Thames from Cookham. He helped buy Spencer’s beloved childhood home, Fernlea, so the artist could move back there in his final years, and paid Spencer £1,000 a year to allow him to work on the painting. Though unfinished, it’s a remarkable demonstration of Spencer’s methods.

The exhibition also includes The Angel, Cookham Churchyard, commissioned by Gwen Raverat, who met Spencer when they were both students at the Slade art school in 1908. She became an important source of emotional and intellectual support, as well as commissioning and buying his works.

One painting in the exhibition has not been on public display for 50 years. Snowdrops, painted in 1955, was bought by Catherine Martineau, who lived near Cookham, and has been privately owned since. “There was only one small clump but they are fearfully pleased with themselves,” Spencer wrote of hte snowdrops. According to Danks, Catherine and Jack Martineau, along with the Astors, were the “crux of [Spencer’s] existence” in his final years.

Neighbours, painted in 1936, depicts Spencer’s childhood home. Photograph: © Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman Images, London

A striking self-portrait of the artist at the age of 23 was bought by Sir Edward Marsh, Spencer’s most important early patron, and loaned to the exhibition by the Tate. Marsh described the painting as “glowing with genius”.

Amanda Bradley, who curated the exhibition, said: “Spencer is seen as an idiosyncratic, individual genius – and that was the case – but a lot of people were drawn to that genius, and Each of his patrons gave something to Spencer. They weren’t wildly rich, but they were powerful, cultivated, intellectual and artistic. They are fascinating characters in their own right. Most fostered long-lived relationships with the artist, influencing his life and work more than has been realised.”

The gallery, which opened three years after the artist’s death, is in the former Methodist chapel Spencer attended as a boy with his mother.

As a child, he was home-schooled, but later studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WW1, an experience on which he drew heavily for his extraordinary war paintings, including the colossal Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere. The 19 enormous paintings were made possible by the patronage of the Behrend family.


Stanley Spencer in 1956 at work on Dinner on the Hotel Lawn, the fourth in his Cookham Regatta series. Photograph: John Pratt/Getty Images

The Resurrection, Cookham, his masterpiece, finished in 1927 and set in the Holy Trinity churchyard, depicts Spencer, Hilda, other members of his family and people from the village emerging from graves, watched by Christ. The art critic of the Times said it was “the most important painted by any English artist in the present century … It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist”.

Spencer married Hilda in 1925, and they had two daughters, but by 1935, he had developed an obsession with his next-door neighbour, artist Patricia Preece, who lived there with her lover Dorothy Hepworth, also an artist.

He left Hilda and married Preece a week after the divorce went through, although the union was never consummated. Spencer signed over the deeds of his Cookham house to Preece, who forced him to leave, rented out the property and lived on the proceeds. After Spencer was knighted in 1959, his by then estranged wife insisted on being addressed as Lady Spencer.

In a TV documentary broadcast earlier this year, Spencer’s daughter Shirin told how she had never forgiven Preece. “When I was young, I just thought this is how things were. But as I got older, and realised what Patricia had done, she became the one person I really hated.”

In his last years, Spencer was seen around Cookham, often wearing pyjamas under his suit and pushing his easel, canvas and paints in an old pram. The gallery, which is run entirely by volunteers, attracts visitors from all over the world. “In some ways, this is a place of pilgrimage for Spencer enthusiasts, of which there are many,” said Danks.

Patron Saints: Collecting Stanley Spencer is open daily 10.30am to 5.30pm until 4 November at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, 16 High Street, Cookham, Berkshire, stanleyspencer.org.uk

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern